Facebook Unveils Two Improved 360-Degree Cameras at F8 Conference

Facebook's (FB)  CTO Mark Schroepfer delivered the keynote on Wednesday at F8, its annual developer conference in San Jose, to announce the second generation of its Surround 360 camera design. 

The new cameras are called the x24, featuring 24 cameras on an orb, and the smaller x6, which features six cameras on an orb. Unlike the original Surround 360 camera announced at last year's F8 event, these cameras use six degrees of freedom (SDOF) to allow a VR headset wearer to move around in about a meter and a half of space to observe an object closer or to simply walk around a space. This effect allows users to feel more immersed in a scene. In addition, while last year's camera became an open-source project on GitHub, Facebook is planning to work with partners to manufacture the x6 and x24 to bring them to market later this year. 

With the new cameras, shooting immersive content is much easier than before. Users can place them in a fixed position in a room but then once they put on the VR headset, they can walk in different directions and the camera can give a detailed picture of what that part of the room will look like without someone having to move the camera to that specific part of the room. 

The ultimate goal for the combination of virtual reality (VR) and video is to make people feel like they are actually in a different place, Schroepfer pointed out. Although technology hasn't made it that far, this is another step forward. "Video is not yet indistinguishable from being there," he admitted.

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Facebook has an interest in creating more immersive 360-degree videos because doing so should help it sell more of its Oculus Rift VR headsets or the more affordable $130 Gear VR device that Facebook partnered with Samsung ( SSNLF) to create. Earlier this year, Facebook cut the price of the Oculus Rift too $499 from $599 and the price of the Oculus Touch controllers to $99 from $199. Rivals include the $799 HTC Vive, released by HTC and Valve last April, and the $399 Sony ( SNE) Playstation VR headset that came out in October. 

Last month, Facebook hired 15-year Apple (AAPL) hardware veteran Michael Hillman to be Oculus Rift's head of hardware. Previously, Hillman had worked at Apple helping to develop hardware products such as the iMac personal computers, and eventually became Apple's chief architect for all desktop computers, according Bloomberg. In 2015, Hillman left Apple to become a vice president at self-driving car startup Zoox.

According to New York-based research firm SuperData, Oculus Rift is estimated to have sold 355,088 units in 2016, a number that's less than its three main competitors despite having the earliest launch date. The HTC Vive sold an estimated 420,108 units in 2016, vs. Playstation VR's 2,602,3078 units and Google's Daydream View 450,083 units. This data shows why Facebook would think it important to reduce the Oculus Rift's cost. In addition, Oculus's VP of content Jason Rublin told pcgamer.com that customer surveys Facebook conducted confirmed the importance of an affordable headset option.

Earlier this year in a Facebook post, company CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed that Oculus VR was working on a number of exciting new technologies, including a prototype for Oculus VR gloves. "We're working on new ways to bring your hands in virtual and augmented reality," he wrote. "Wearing these gloves, you can draw, type on a virtual keyboard, and even shoot webs like Spider Man."

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